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  • Dale C. Maley

The Anti-Horse Thief Assn.

Living in the 21st Century, it is hard to comprehend how important horses were to everyday life in Fairbury.

Farmers used teams of horses instead of tractors to plant and harvest their fields. Citizens living within the city limits of Fairbury kept horses in their small horse barns behind their houses and used them for daily transportation.

Today, there are only two new car dealers left in Fairbury. In the 1890s, many horse breeders and importers sold horses to farmers and city dwellers. Horses were some of the most valuable possessions farmers and city residents owned.


Shortly after the start of the Civil War, lawless men in the border states lying between the loyal and seceded states banded themselves together to plunder honest citizens. Missouri, especially, was subject to the depredations of these gangs, and in time, the conditions became so bad that the law-abiding people found it necessary to take some action for defense.


In 1863, the first society, the "Anti Horse Thief Association," was formed in Millport, Missouri. The effectiveness of such an organization quickly became apparent, and the order spread to other states. After the Civil War ended, the conditions that brought the association into existence no longer existed. The group expanded its scope to include all kinds of thefts and a national organization was incorporated under the laws of Kansas.


In November 1877, the Gibson-City Courier reported that the Anti-Horse Thief Association had 361 lodges and 8,000 members in Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois. The article reported that the organization did not encourage lynching, although that course is permitted in places where the officers of the law cannot be relied upon to prosecute thieves.


In 1884, Saybrook created their Anti-Horse Thief Association. In 1885, the Illinois State Legislature passed a new law empowering members of the anti-horse thief association to arrest parties suspected of having stolen property.


The March 1888 Gibson-City Courier reported the anti-horse thief associations in Illinois were planning a state convention in Champaign. The goal was to create a State Grand Association.


In 2010, the Pantagraph published a story about the Anti-Horse Thief associations. The story noted that in mid-October 1889, the Illinois associations held a grand annual meeting at Bloomington's Maennerchor Hall. The Pantagraph article reported there were about 3,000 members of the association in Illinois.


To quiet whispers (or outright accusations) of vigilantism, the society emphasized that thieves, once captured, were handed over to proper authorities. The 100-member Saybrook local chapter was one of the strongest in Central Illinois.


The Blade newspaper first mentioned a Fairbury chapter of the Anti-Horse Thief Association in August 1896. The Blade reported that the association would be serving ice cream to its members on Saturday. Tip Cox, the association's president, was scheduled to give a speech to the group.


One month later, the Pantagraph announced that the Pontiac Anti-Horse Thief Association had a picnic at Cumpston's Grove. There were speeches, music, and a big dinner.


The February 1897 Pantagraph reported that the Fairbury Anti-Horse Thief Association would be holding a parade and drill the next Saturday afternoon. Members would also have their pictures taken. About 100 members, including the Weston division, were expected to attend. The Pantagraph reported that persons expecting to steal horses are invited to examine the arms and muscles of the paraders.


On February 18, 1897, the Blade reported that the Fairbury Anti-Horse Thief Association had a parade of about 70 horsemen, and they made an imposing appearance. The gathering was in front of what is now old City Hall in Fairbury.


The Pantagraph also reported about the Fairbury parade and reported that the Fairbury Association was negotiating to buy a pair of bloodhounds to assist in tracking down thieves and bad men.


In 1898, the Blade reported that the Anti-Horse Thief Association was planning to hold an oyster supper at their hall the next Friday. The association's bloodhounds were going to hold a demonstration chase starting at 11 a.m.


The 1902 Blade reported the Anti-Horse Thief Association had voted to disband. The association voted to give the $40 in their treasury to the city to beautify Marsh Park.


In 1908, Henry Ford introduced his Model T automobile. It was the first car cheap enough for the average man to buy. Within a few years, all the horses in the city limits of Fairbury were replaced by automobiles. Farmers held onto their horses until the 1940s when they were all replaced by internal combustion engine-powered tractors.


In September 1925, the Blade first printed a copy of the large Fairbury Anti-Horse Thief Association parade held back in 1897.


In 1976, Jim Roberts, Editor of the Blade, reported the Blade's copy of this 1897 iconic photo was stained and in bad shape. He asked readers if they had a better copy of this photo.


In 2023, someone graciously donated their family's copy of the iconic 1897 photo to the Fairbury Echoes Museum. The Association members were on horseback in front of Walton's Department Store. One member holds a sign that says, "Fairbury, No. 198, A.H.T.A). The acronym for the Anti-Horse Thief Association was A.H.T.A.


The fascinating story of the Fairbury Anti-Horse Thief Association reminds us of an earlier era when horses were some of the most essential possessions of farmers and city dwellers.


(Dale Maley's weekly history article on Fairbury News is sponsored by Dr. Charlene Aaron and Antiques & Uniques of Fairbury)



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Kent Aberle
Kent Aberle
May 22



Dale Maley
Dale Maley
May 22

Here is colorized version of this iconic photo........

DAVES LOGO larger.jpg
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